Back in January 2020, roughly two years and a lifetime ago, no less an authority than Rolling Stone declared Portland the center of one of the country’s eight best music scenes — right in there with no-duh picks like Chicago, New Orleans, and Nashville. “A left-field surprise,” the mag said, “drawing promoters from major cities and ambitious young songwriters . . . flooded with exciting venues and artists taking big risks.” It was an overdue nod to a Maine scene that, for decades, has been vigorous and varied, if not always high profile.
Then, six weeks later, every music venue in the state shut its doors indefinitely. For Maine musicians, few of whom have the audience to get by on merch and music sales alone, a year or more without live shows was daunting. It bred creativity: everyone from the Bangor Symphony Orchestra to metal-tinged rockers Murcielago livestreamed shows from empty venues; folk-pop outfit Pete Kilpatrick Band and indie songstress Lady Lamb were among those who hosted concert series in their yards. And for plenty of artists, the pandemic opened up a space for deeper creativity and exploration.
“For me and some of my peers, shutting down the live shows let us really home in on just making music, kind of get back to why we want to do this in the first place,” says Ryan Peters, aka Spose, the Sanford-based rapper who released a double album, his ninth full-length, in October. And as venues have reopened, he says, “the other Maine acts that I really like, in all my conversations, are just super hyped to get out and play and see fans again.”
Singer-songwriter and Georgetown native Lauren Crosby senses the same energy. “People I roll with are just extremely ready to get back out there,” Crosby says. “I think of all the talented people who have maybe used the last couple years to focus on a project they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise, and I’m excited to see new work and new artists emerging out of this.” — Brian Kevin
Bensbeendead.: One-man Band with an Electric Sound
Bensbeendead. is just one guy, 25-year-old Bennett Thompson, but his influences are many — a recent EP, Lovely Creatures, shows strains of funk, hip-hop, and electronica, all bound together by a gentle pop sensibility. Thompson chalks up his chill sound to the low-key spirit of his home state. “When I go to LA or New York, there is a distinct sound and landscape to those places,” he says. “I don’t make aggressive music because I don’t feel that energy in Maine.”
Thompson grew up in Yarmouth and lives in Westbrook. In high school, he and some friends started hanging around the music room’s recording studio. On his school-issued laptop, he learned to produce songs using GarageBand software, for his friends to add vocals to. Their interest eventually faded, but not his. He taught himself to sing and started writing his own lyrics. Eight years later, he has more than 150,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and millions of plays on his songs “Stand Still” and “Radio Silence.”
Refining his craft wasn’t easy, owing to a self-critical streak. Thompson has removed several of his early projects from streaming platforms because they no longer align with his vision for Bensbeendead., and he says his 2020 album, Gardening, was the first he’s fully proud of. With Lovely Creatures, he explores new thematic terrain — he crafted the album to be uplifting, a departure from writing about his struggles with anxiety and depression. In part, he wanted to make his live performances more danceable and fun.
In 2019, touring as an opener for rapper Spose, Thompson met Dave Gutter, a guitarist in Spose’s live band and frontman for Portland-scene godfathers Rustic Overtones. These days, the pair co-own The Space, a Portland recording studio. Thompson’s next goal: to headline a tour. He doesn’t consider himself a particularly confident person, but on stage, he says, he feels like he can transform into his expressive alter ego, one that has an easier time communicating. “My favorite lyric I’ve written is ‘All covered in cuts, but we bandage them well, I do what I can with the hand I was dealt,’” he says. “A lot of life is getting knocked down and getting back up. That’s what differentiates you as a musician.” — Adrienne Perron
Guitar, drums, keyboard, bass, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and mandolin, plus something out of the percussion family called a cajón — “We’re just trying to play groovy, indie folk music with as many instruments as we can fit on a stage,” says Jamie Oshima, who, along with his older brother, Sean, was raised by multi-instrumentalist parents in Belfast. “There were instruments left all around the house for us to pick up and play,” he recalls. “We almost couldn’t help but become a band.”
Thusly formed, the Oshima Brothers dropped their first album in 2016, when Sean was 22 and Jamie was 19. The self-titled project’s light-as-air folk-meets-pop tracks earned the Oshimas a loyal in-state following. When they followed that up with an EP, Under the Same Stars, in 2019, they found themselves with a slew of new listeners streaming their music from farther afield. Then, as they were getting ready to head out on their most extensive tour to date, that momentum hit a roadblock with the arrival of the pandemic, forcing the cancellation of 30 of their shows.
In the ensuing months, the brothers moved from Belfast to Portland and got to work assembling a recording studio in their basement. Hunkered down, they also spent time thinking about — and then tweaking — their artistic trajectory. “We had started out with this acoustic vibe,” Sean says, “but lately we’ve been slowly moving more in the direction of music for people to dance to, which was maybe kind of funny in the complete absence of people being able to go out to concerts and dance.”
Since the middle of 2020, Sean and Jamie have dropped a flurry of singles and two EPs. One track is titled “Dance with Me,” although another, “The Afterglow,” is probably their dance-iest tune yet. Still, the creative shift has been subtle — more of a recalibration than a reinvention — and fans of their older stuff aren’t likely to balk at the new. The Oshimas plan to release another EP this month, and they’ll later merge those tracks with other recent material to produce their second full-length album, Dark Nights Golden Days. They’ve also been busy shooting a long-form companion film for the album, threading together music videos in such a way as to create a unifying effect (“like a book of short stories with the same characters,” according to Sean). And they’ve gotten back to touring too — an East Coast swing this winter includes a February stop at Rockland’s Strand Theatre. “It feels great to be back out there,” Sean says. “Playing in front of people again has been really joyful.” — Will Grunewald
Halcyon String Quartet: Chamber Music with a Mission
If there’s one principle most charter ensembles prize above all others, it’s cohesion. For a small group of musicians to play such technically demanding music requires them to be a tight-knit circle, attuned to one another to the point of near-telepathy. The midcoast’s Halcyon String Quartet is nothing if not tight-knit: its violinists, Sophie and Josie Davis, are sisters; Josie’s husband, Colin Wheatley, plays viola; a pair of longtime friends, Ju-Young Lee and Nora Willauer, take turns as cellists.
But what makes the group exceptional is its founding commitment to collaboration, to cracking open the circle and welcoming in all kinds of outsiders. “At its core, Halcyon is a quartet,” Sophie says, “but so much of where our heart lies as an organization is in working with not just different musicians but also different artists and scientific organizations.”
Fire up YouTube — the best way to hear Halcyon’s music at home — and stream the group’s crisp, expressive performance of Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto from last January, at Waldoboro’s Waldo Theatre. Making them temporarily a quintet is violinist Luke Fatora, who filmed and edited the synched-up footage that plays in the background. As the ensemble navigates the first movement’s shiver-like trills, a screen cycles through surreal aerials of a frozen Medomak River. During the third movement’s blizzard-mimicking solo, time-lapse storm clouds cascade over a snow-capped mountain.
Other 2021 Halcyon performances included supporting a vocalist singing “documentary songs” about resilience in the face of contemporary ills — from racial violence to wildfires — and live-scoring a presentation about the Schoodic Institute’s conservation efforts. Underway is a team-up with Maine artist and glaciologist Jill Pelto, whom Halcyon commissioned to paint a watercolor depicting scenarios for Maine sea-level rise. The group will interpret the painting on stage this spring, in a program that includes Samuel Barber’s mournful Adagio for Strings.
The ensemble formed in 2018, after Sophie returned from a stint as a Fulbright scholar in Samoa, studying how the arts can influence the climate movement. After years playing together casually, the 27-year-old Waldoboro native says, “we started thinking about how we could use what we were creating to tell a story, to convey information and communicate science.” They founded Halcyon (named for a lobsterboat Sophie spotted while working on an oyster farm) hoping to urge environmental stewardship through music.
Halcyon casts as wide a net for its repertoire as for its collaborators: you’ll hear the classical canon alongside Appalachian folk tunes and contemporary composers like Philip Glass and Monthati Masebe. “It’s easy for string quartets to get stuck in this mode of only playing musicians who were alive 400 years ago,” Sophie says. In more ways than one, Halcyon’s focus includes the years to come. — B.K.
Louisa Stancioff: Ethereal, Fuzzed-out Ballads From a Recovering Folkie
A good place to start with songwriter Louisa Stancioff is “Gold,” the first track on Tape Recordings, a bare-bones, five-song EP she released in November on the music platform Bandcamp. Making it through the four-minute dream-folk ditty without humming along requires some restraint. Stancioff’s soft-as-a-feather falsetto, drizzled in reverb, slides like a streamlet over a bed of acoustic strumming (with harmony, on this track, from her sister, Elisabeth). The melodic, moony vibe will be familiar to fans of Iron & Wine, Feist, or Nick Drake, and the same is true for the rest of Tape Recordings, as well as for Missoula, the wistful bedroom record Stancioff self-released after a brief stint in western Montana in 2017.
But the 28-year-old, who lives in Camden, has a less gauzy streak too, heard on the smattering of EPs and lone album (aptly titled Dreamcountry) she put out with her previous band, Dyado, which folded in 2020. A joint project with her cousin, Matt Lohan, Dyado found Stancioff channeling something closer to Gillian Welch — a bit less breathy, a bit more twangy — backed by drums and bass and electric guitars. These days, she wields an electric as an indie-folk solo act and picks up an acoustic to gig locally with Cattail, an old-timey guitar-banjo-fiddle trio. The common thread: Stancioff’s fluid soprano, usually mournful and always hypnotic.
Growing up in Chesterville, Stancioff sang in a few choirs, took piano lessons she hated, and learned the ukulele and fiddle (the latter so she could field-trip to Nova Scotia with her Farmington high school’s fiddle ensemble). The stringed instruments led her into a traditional folk band in college, in upstate New York, but soon, she says, “I realized I didn’t want to just be making straight-up folk music.” So she picked up an electric and started writing lyrics too abstruse for the coffeehouse circuit. She traveled some, including to Asheville, North Carolina, where she ran with banjo pickers and indie rockers, then to Los Angeles, with her cousin. When COVID hit, she headed home to Maine, where she spent time recording this winter at Great North Sound Society studio, in Parsonsfield, and where she plans to stick around awhile, exploring the various facets of her musical identity.
“I’m a folk bitch through and through and always will be, but I don’t want to just be that,” Stancioff says. “Playing my own stuff with an electric guitar, it feels like I’m expressing myself more fully and being more vulnerable. It’s about leaning into the kind of darker, more emotional parts of life and love and feeling — and just being a little more rock and roll.” — B.K.
Music You May Have Missed: 40-Word Album Reviews
Maine musicians have put out plenty of good music during the last two years, when performing has been a challenge. Here’s a dozen of our favorite pandemic-era releases.
Wildflower The Ocean Rose Wildflower’s ambient, daydreamer indie-folk songs feel like sonic equivalents of watercolor landscapes of wide-open spaces. Indeed, the Portland-based band drew inspiration from travels along the Maine and California coasts. The resulting album is vast, beautiful, and worth getting lost in.
Standout track: “Golden,” a score for sunsets.
Dominic Lavoie Wave with a Broken Arm A Madawaska native and present- day Portlander, Lavoie cycles through elements of new wave, grunge, psych, and art rock — this wouldn’t be the first review to note shades of Bowie. Experimental vibes pervade his latest album. It all hangs together brilliantly.
Standout track: “Trillion Dollar Man,” a blend of wry lyricism and hard-charging guitar.
Lauren Crosby Nights Darker in New Harbor Whether she’s lamenting loneliness or flaunting fierce independence, Georgetown-reared Crosby delivers tuneful angst with country twang. A mix of rock and roots influences gives this one some appeal for Lilith Fair folkies, fans of classic rock, and country lovers alike.
Standout track: “American Dream,” a honky-tonk roadhouse paean.
Spose Get Rich or Die Ryan The rapper, born Ryan Peters, salutes his ’90s alt-rock roots with a backing band on the first half of this self-consciously schizophrenic double album. The second half finds Spose (and his guests) spitting clever, self-reflective verses over mostly R&B-inflected beats.
Standout track: “Better with Time,” a swaggering mid-career anthem with Motown vibes.
Ben Cosgrove The Trouble with Wilderness A lush, dynamic solo-piano record from composer and on-again, off-again Portlander Cosgrove, whose work interprets built and natural landscapes. Here nimble, there elegiac, it’s as stirring as a great film score, as technically remarkable as any concert-hall piece. Rewards re-listening.
Standout track: “Meltwater,” as brisk and tumbling as its namesake.
Weakened Friends Quitter A wonderfully loud, intensely hooky throwback to ’90s alt-rock college radio, the Portland power trio’s sophomore album will wow fans of, say, Sleater-Kinney or Weezer. Frontwoman Sonia Sturino’s got some pipes, wailing about fear of failure in a manic glissando.
Standout track: The driving “Tunnels,” destined to be a (slightly explicit) concert sing-along.
Mosart212 & Myles Bullen Looking for a Body A dreamy, pensive little EP that finds sensitive spoken-word rapper Myles Bullen paired with prolific and inventive Portland DJ Mosart212 (Moises Nuñez). Not 15 minutes long, its beats are downtempo, thickly textured, and reverb heavy — a headphone-friendly evening wind-down listen.
Standout track: The shuffling, confessional “Forwarded Message.”
KevCoast Forever Energy KevCoast’s music is a vibe. Bangor singer Kevin Prentice’s five-song EP, his fourth, is easy on the ears, with silky, calming vocals that muse on love, stress, and breakups over relaxed beats with R&B flair. It’s a solid date-night soundtrack.
Standout track: The sultry slow-jam “Tell Me Things?”
New Fame Unicorn Theory Both debut album and swan song for the hard-touring, globetrotting, recently split hip-hop duo Adrienne Mack-Davis and feleciacruz. It’s an easy record to dance to, full of high-energy, reggae-infused sing-rap. The beats are clubby and the lyrics catchy and affirmational.
Standout track: “Handstand,” a synthy pump-up jam.
Travis Cyr Whoever You Are I Love You An earnest storyteller with a gentle, nasal tenor, Cyr works in the mold of mid-career Dylan or Jackson Browne. The latest of several pandemic releases from the Aroostook troubadour has its share of earworms — and a trance-inducing 12-minute namesake track.
Standout track: “Ichabod,” with its catchy, repetitive guitar riff.
Genevieve Stokes Swimming Lessons Atlantic Records signed Stokes after her Falmouth High graduation, and on her debut album, the precocious indie-pop artist wields her richly textured voice with canny restraint, as much incanting as singing sometimes — wash-right-over-you sound that sticks in your head nonetheless.
Standout track: The melancholic and lovely “Surface Tension.”
Laurie Jones Dark Horse Saco-based rocker Jones’s guitar-drenched, up-tempo seventh album is loaded up with songs that ought to filter from open car windows on balmy summer evenings or blare outside ski lodges on bluebird days — it has that just-right low thrum of adrenaline.
Standout track: The propulsive album opener, “That Summer.”